Sports: Student Athletes? Pay the Players!

Cam Newton
Cam Newton

My love affair with sports began at the age of seven as I watched my beloved Dodgers, the Brooklyn variety, go down in seven to the hated Yankees in the 1952 World Series. At some point during the 1957 season it became clear that the Dodgers were abandoning Brooklyn with the help of Walter O’Malley and Robert Moses, and I had to begin to come to terms with the fact that the game that I loved was a business. The business side of sports has become more problematic to me over the years, with big time Division I college sports being emblematic of a number of my concerns.

I talked with the folks at Nippertown at the Albany Jazz Fest on 9/10 about writing a piece that focused on the need for universities to treat athletes as employees with the rights and privileges that employees enjoy, including fair compensation, not simply a scholarship. Four days later, Taylor Branch’s article “The Shame of College Sports” became available online at The Atlantic (it will also be available in hard copy in the magazine’s October issue) and created quite the buzz.

In his article, Branch persuasively argues that “corporations offer money so they can profit from the glory of college athletes, and the universities grab it.” In 2010, the Southeastern Conference became the first conference to generate a billion dollars in athletic receipts with the Big Ten closing in on that same figure. The average compensation for head football coaches at public universities is now more than $2 million dollars and has grown by 750% adjusted for inflation, since 1984. To put it in context, college faculty salaries have risen 32% during that time. Does this reflect the term “student-athlete”? Perhaps the reverse would be more in keeping with the reality of university culture.

How important are the athletic programs to the financial health of universities? “The” Ohio State University was under investigation last year for possible National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) violations committed by a number of players on the football team. When the president of the University Gordon Gee was asked by an Associated Press reporter whether he was considering firing the popular coach, Jim Tressel, his reply was, “I hope that he doesn’t dismiss me.”

This may have been said tongue in cheek, but it underscores the financial dependence that universities have on their athletic programs, the power and influence that said programs have over the rest of the university, and the university’s reluctance to properly oversee these“ cash cows.” Too often when a stiff price is paid as a result of an investigation that leads to penalties, it is the players who take the biggest hit, not the university. An example might be the aforementioned Ohio State football players who received some discounted tattoos and possibly a little cash in exchange for jerseys and championship rings that they were given and were presumably their property. Not according to the NCAA, who claimed that this was a violation of their rules and suspended the players for a number of games.

On the other hand, Cam Newton, last year’s Heisman Award winner, wore at least 15 corporate logos on his jersey, helmet visor, wristband, pants, shoes, as part of Auburn’s $10.6 million deal with Under Armour. Newton received nothing for being a human billboard.

There are a variety of vehicles that universities employ to generate revenue, but the workers in these domains of the university get paid for their labor. While the coaching and support staff in the athletic departments gets paid for their work, the players, whose labor generates the bulk of the athletic revenue, do not get paid. Make no mistake: we pay to watch the players, not the coaches, not the team medical staff, not the academic support system.

The age-old response to this concern about paying the players is that they are student-athletes and as such amateurs; therefore, they can’t receive financial compensation directly … but they receive it indirectly through athletic scholarships. This argument is weak for a couple of reasons.

First, this “amateur” status is not chosen, but rather it is imposed by the NCAA. As a result, there is an absence of basic worker rights such as workmen’s compensation. Every year, athletic careers end as a result of injuries. Some of the injuries have long term effects on a person’s income potential. A few result in death. Since they are not considered employees of the university, they are not entitled to workmen’s compensation, and the liability to the university is generally quite limited.

Second, their athletic scholarship is a one-year award with the possibility of it being renewed or not at the discretion of the coach. A recent study by the National College Players Association reported that 22% of the players from top Division I basketball teams did not have their basketball scholarship renewed. Sometimes this is simply the result of a new head coach being hired who wants to bring in his own “hired guns” … er, umm, student-athletes.

Taylor Branch uses the plantation metaphor to describe the relationship that the NCAA and universities have with their athletes. It is at the very least a paternalistic perspective that views the young athlete as in need of strict supervision provided by the coaches, university, and the NCAA that will enable them to be successful adults. In return, the athletes will put their bodies on the line for no pay and with no basic worker rights in order to generate millions for the universities and the NCAA. Quite a partnership.

Story by Richard Brody
Photo of Cam Newtown by Zennie Abraham.

1 Comment
  1. J. Welf says

    This sort of application to college players should also reach down into the ranks of the Little League World Series.

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